Over the next few weeks, I plan to send along a selection of classic mystery and history pairings for your reading, listening and watching enjoyment. This week’s adventure will take us to Medieval Europe.
The Medieval period is an expansive and fluid era that roughly begins in the 5th century C.E. after the fall of Rome and extends through the 14th century C.E. to the beginning of the Renaissance. The fictional and non-fictional material I have selected concentrates on the High and Late Middle Ages. The High Middle Ages is when the majority of the Crusades took place, as well as was a time of growth in population, intellectualism and the arts. The Late Middle ages was the time of the Hundred Years’ War, social unrest and the Plague.
For many of us, it is a fascinating and romantic time period that provides rich material for great stories both real and imagined.
I have selected four medieval mysteries, all in e-book format available on Hoopla. Three of the books are part of larger series, with additional titles available in Hoopla.
Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael takes place in the 12th century and features an ex-Crusader monk who has a talent for herbal medicine and solving crimes. From 1994-98, British ITV Central produced a 13-episode TV series starring Derek Jacobi as the amazing Brother Cadfael. The series is available to stream on BBC’s BritBox and through Amazon Prime with a BritBox subscription. You could binge watch all the episodes during your one- month free trial! I just love this series. The first title in the series is available only in e-book but others are available on audiobook in Hoopla.
Paul Doherty’s Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan series takes place in the 14th century during the final days of the English Plantagenets. The series begins with death of the Black Prince and his father Edward the III, and the reign of Richard the II during the Hundred Years’ War. Our sleuth is a Dominican Friar who works for the coroner of the City of London. The series is full of historical detail and political intrigue. The author, Paul Charles Dominic (I wonder if there is any coincidence that our hero is a Dominican Friar) Doherty OBE, is an award-winning British author, lecturer and historian. He has been praised for his deep knowledge of the Hundred Years’ War and his ability to use his mystery novels as vehicles of making this complex history both real and entertaining to the reader. Many titles from this series are available as e-books in Hoopla.
Michael Jecks’ Knights Templar Mystery series is set in the 14th century after the tragic fall of the Knights Templar. Jecks’ hero Sir Baldwin Furnshill, a Templar that survived the fate of his brothers, takes readers on a journey of crime-solving full of plot twists and turns that will satisfy both the historical fiction reader as well as the die-hard mystery lover. There are several titles in the series available as e-books in Hoopla.
The Name of the Rose, or Il nome della rosa in its native Italian, is the first novel of acclaimed Italian intellectual and author Umberto Eco. The novel takes place in an Italian Benedictine monastery under suspicion of heresy in the 14th century. A Fransiscan friar, Brother William of Baskerville, is sent to solve the bizarre murders of a half dozen monks. The sense of the historical period and place is beautifully described. As in all of Eco’s works, there are many levels of meaning. Although the story can stand alone as a wonderful mystery, there is so much more in its philosophical investigations into the meaning of truth, literary symbolism and medieval history. The book has been awarded the Prix Medici and Premio Strega. The novel has sold over 50 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books ever published. A well-regarded film adaptation was made in 1986 starring Sean Connery as Brother William. Unfortunately, this movie is not currently available for streaming. In 2019, a miniseries adaptation was created by Radiotelevisione Italiana that stars John Turturro as Brother William. The miniseries is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. I must say this is one of my favorite authors and most loved books. If you have read it, this is the perfect re-read to lose yourself in a book. It is available as an e-book in Hoopla.
I have included six non-fiction audiobooks, a film adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a couple of documentary films, and an entertaining podcast where medievalists speak on a wide range of topics. All of the titles referenced include links for immediate access. The audiobooks are available in Hoopla, while the films are available on Hoopla and Acorn TV (all are free to you with a Mt Lebanon Public Library card); the podcast is available for free online.
Historian Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author, won a National Book award in History for the first paperback edition of A Distant Mirror in 1980. A Distant Mirror is a work of narrative history that portrays the complex lives of those that lived in the chaotic 14th century. Tuchman intended for the book to provide perspective on the equally chaotic time of World War I in the 20th century. World War I is a period that Tuchman spent a great deal of time researching, and her most famous work is the World War I history The Guns of August, for which she received a Pulitzer Prize (this work is available on audiobook in Hoopla). A Distant Mirror is available as an audiobook in Hoopla.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman; read by Nadia May
Princes and Knights:
The Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock, heir to the Plantagenet throne from his father Edward III, was considered one of the greatest warriors of the Medieval era. The Black Prince was engaged in the legendary battles of Crecy and Poitiers in the 14th century and was considered by his contemporaries to be the embodiment of Medieval chivalry. This masterfully told historical biography takes the reader into the life and untimely death of the “flower of chivalry.” Michael Jones is a British author, military historian and documentary-film presenter.
Medieval history scholar Thomas Asbridge’s story of the life of one of the most famous medieval knights, William Marshal, is a compelling and highly readable tale. The strength of the narrative is due to the fascinating subject and Asbridge’s historical knowledge and talent in storytelling. William Marshal rose from the ranks of being nearly hung on the gallows to being tournament champion, great warrior and the most valued servant of five Plantagenet kings. This is a story of the man and politician, and the knightly class that was his world. Asbridge is a medieval history scholar at Queen Mary University of London. He has written several acclaimed works on medieval history and has presented several BBC television series on the period, including one on William Marshal. This book is available as an audiobook on Hoopla.
The life and works of Geoffrey Chaucer provide a window into the social structure, daily lives and conventions of the 14th-century world. The Hundred Years’ War, Peasants’ Revolt, and the deposition of Richard II all occurred in Chaucer’s lifetime. His Canterbury Tales played a significant role in elevating the use of the English vernacular as a language suitable for literature. The tales of the twenty-four pilgrims are imbued with satire and (depending on the translation) are significantly ribald. They reflect how the different social classes viewed their world and their positions within it. I have included below links to two audiobooks that explore Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The first is by acclaimed British novelist, critic and biographer Peter Ackroyd; his biography is read by the equally acclaimed narrator, Simon Vance. The second is Liza Picard’s Chaucer’s People; it is a historical exploration of Canterbury Tales’ cast of characters.
I have also included an audiobook modern-verse translation of the Canterbury Tales, as performed by a cast of British theater actors. Finally, I have included a link to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film adaptation of the Canterbury Tales. For those of you not familiar with Pasolini, please avoid the movie if you are averse to violence and somewhat explicit language and scenes. All the audiobooks and Pasolini’s film are available on Hoopla.
I have included a link to my Acorn TV Medieval Watchlist, which includes two documentary series on the period. “Britain’s Bloodiest Dynasty” is presented by a favorite popular historian of mine, Dan Jones. Jones is quite entertaining and Plantagenet history is his area of special interest. He has written an engaging history on the Plantagenets, which is available as an audiobook on Hoopla.
Canadian historian, writer, professor and TEDx speaker, Danièle Cybulskie, is the creator and host of The Medieval Podcast, a weekly interview show in which she speaks with experts on the Middle Ages on a wide variety of topics.